“We borrowed a good citizen’s hand. His spirit is understandably restless and disturbed.”
I know, I’ve been hammering on this forever, but including a major subplot about gypsies in a television show based in Maine is a source of constant amusement to me, and I refuse to grow up and get over it.
Several months ago, free spirit Magda Rakosi liberated a rare and valuable magical talisman from her tribe, and the gypsies have had enough. I don’t think she’s been doing her weekly three hours of mandatory tambourine-shaking, either. The gypsy community is a lot more law-and-order than people think.
Now, Johnny Romana — King of the Gypsies! — has swung by in person, to take the suspect into custody. Magda asks what’s going to happen, and King Johnny announces, “We’re going to go — back to Boston!” Magda looks terrified, but I bet she’s also wondering if they could swing by Filene’s Basement on the way to the tribunal.
Always fast on her feet, Magda tries to slip out the front door, but then — oh, dear.
But then there’s Istvan.
And I have to say, I did not see that one coming. With all of the craziness happening on the show right now, I didn’t think they’d throw a mute Black gypsy pirate circus performer at us, and now that they have, I don’t know what to do about it.
I mean, everybody talks about the long-overdue national conversation about race, and then it shows up at your door, huge and angry and partially clothed, and you can’t think of a thing to say.
Let’s start here: Istvan is the second Black person to appear on Dark Shadows. The first was a day player nurse a year ago, in episode 563. At the time, I thought she was the only Black person to appear, because I’d forgotten all about Istvan. So this is a 100% increase in the number of people of color on the program, not counting the artificially colored people, like Magda. That ought to count for something, I suppose.
But it’s kind of a shame that the only Black man to appear in any broadcast or film version of Dark Shadows is supposed to be inherently terrifying. Magda opens the front door, and there’s Istvan, sneering, and she instantly screams and cowers. This is a woman who has successfully faced down vampires, werewolves, witches and fire demons, but a Black dude with a headscarf has her completely flummoxed.
I really do think he’s the only one, too. I can’t think of any Black people that I’ve seen in the 1991 show so far, and I’ve reached the part that takes place in 1790, so there’s probably not much chance from here on. House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows used the same cast as the TV show, and there aren’t any in the Tim Burton movie either, not even in the docks or the cannery scenes.
There was a Black actor playing Sheriff Patterson in the Dark Shadows pilot that they made for the CW in 2005, but they never aired the pilot, and maybe that was the reason why. Maybe America still isn’t ready for an integrated Collinsport; I can’t say. The only people who have dared to cast Black people on Dark Shadows and lived to tell the tale are the folks at Big Finish. But they’re English, and they probably think Maine is a borough of New York.
So here’s a question that I have about Istvan: Is the mute Black strongman a stereotype that I can’t quite place? Doctor Who had two of them, in two consecutive stories from 1967: Kemel in The Evil of the Daleks, and Toberman in The Tomb of the Cybermen. Kemel’s outfit is actually not too far away from Istvan’s look, either.
But the people who made Dark Shadows in 1969 weren’t watching Doctor Who in England, so are these both related to some proto-Kemel-Istvan Great White Hunter adventure story cliche, or something? I don’t have a joke about this or anything; I’m actually curious. Istvan is a complex space-time event that I’m having a problem getting my head around.
Oh, and Istvan is a Hungarian name, by the way, like Petofi and Sandor. This is what Istvans usually look like. Therefore, our Istvan is actually an example of color-blind casting, and Dark Shadows is ahead of its time, thank you very much, I rest my case.
There, that was easy. I don’t know why nobody else is having this long-overdue national conversation but me. Once you get started, it’s a breeze.
Yesterday, the mad god Count Petofi put an enchantment on Magda, and now she’s unable to say his name. So there are several moments when she tries to explain — that she didn’t kill Julianka, that the legendary Hand in the legendary box is a decoy, that Petofi has control of the Hand once more — but she can’t finish the sentence, and she ends up shaking her head.
And I have to say, this is the first time in Petofi’s reign of terror that I take issue with his plans. I don’t mind the fact that he’s putting Magda in danger, of course, because he’s a villain, and he’s supposed to do villainous things. The problem is that this spell diminishes Magda.
Magda is a kaiju, one of the giant monsters that stomps through Dark Shadows, crushing everything in her path. She’s basically a colorized version of Julia, which makes her the most interesting person in any given scene, give or take a Selby. But now she’s cowering, unable to finish a sentence, and we have no use for a cowering Magda.
Until now, Petofi’s spells have created thrilling spectacles — turning prim Charity into bawdy Pansy, Jamison into a Bond villain, Edward into a comedy butler. Even chaining Barnabas up in a box is exciting, because we get to see him trying to conduct urgent conversations while lying on his back and acting furiously at the ceiling. But Petofi’s made Magda less interesting, and I consider that his first mistake.
So here’s Magda, pleading, “Tell me, Johnny… Before I go, can I go say goodbye to my dead ones — to Jenny, to Sandor, to Jenny’s baby?”
“No time for that!” Johnny declares. “We have a long way to go. And besides, maybe you’ll be saying hello to them quicker than you think.”
Istvan chortles in a deep baritone as they lead her away, and oh my god, ISTVAN’S PANTS. Holy cow. I had no idea there were gypsies like this in Boston; talk about a Big Dig.
Meanwhile, Petofi and Aristede are gloating in their underground lair, because the show is nothing but villains now; there are six characters in today’s episode, and all of them are baddies. It’s basically How to Get Away with Murder, but with way more murder and nobody gets an Emmy. They don’t even get nominated for a Golden Globe, poor things; they’re just doing it for the love of the art form.
Staring straight at the audience as usual, Petofi rants about his favorite subject, namely how clever and resourceful Count Petofi is. Last night, they excavated the grave of some freshly-killed day player named Abraham Howell, and they cut off his hand, which he was hardly using anyway. They doctored it up and planted it in the Old House for King Johnny to find, which now that I think about it really was quite clever.
But Abraham Howell has something to say about this. He pays the pair a little visit, exhibiting all the usual Dark Shadows haunted house tricks — the candles blow out, the occasional furniture tips over, and a mysterious wind ruffles the pages on Petofi’s music stand. Incidentally, I don’t know what instrument Count Petofi plays with his grotesque gnarled hand, but oh, how I would like to find out. Attention, Big Finish: please hurry up with that Count Petofi: Behind the Music special that you’ve been sitting on all this time.
To battle the spirit, Petofi delivers a brief exorcism spell, standing at the front of the stage and staring directly at the audience, as if he ever does anything else. Sometimes I wonder if he even knows there’s a set behind him.
But he has even more surprises planned for us today, because he is the greatest villain the world has ever seen. Popping the locks on Barnabas’ coffin, he allows the star of the show a couple minutes of vertical air time.
Eager to shake his gypsy tormenters, the Count wants Barnabas to help him time travel to 1969. Barnabas has declined, for the perfectly understandable reason that he has no idea how he got here in the first place. The conversation gets a little fraught.
Petofi’s been reading that time-battered book, the Collins family history, which was published in 1965 and ended up in his possession through a long chain of utterly improbable events. “I’ve been studying your family history with great interest,” he tells Barnabas. “I’m fascinated by everyone in it. I don’t know why you came back here, but I know that somehow, it concerns some of those people. Am I right?”
Barnabas tries to stonewall. “I can only say what I’ve told you before. I cannot pass through time, I cannot take you.”
“BUT YOU WILL NOT EVEN TRY!” Petofi thunders, losing his cool for the first time this century. But he manages to get himself back under control, and moves on to the next stage of the conversation.
“Very well,” he purrs, “if you will say no more, then I must remain what I am — a restless spectator, at a play that’s about to begin. I sit in my seat, I read the program, scanning the cast of characters — wondering what each one will do, when the curtain rises.” He fixes Barnabas with a stare. “But suppose the curtain rises, and there is — nothing but a bare stage?”
And then he calls for Aristede, who enters carrying two giant flaming torches, because today is filled with marvelous surprises.
“These are simple, but effective,” the crime boss says. “In my time, I’ve destroyed entire gypsy villages with them.” This is casual conversation for Count Petofi. “With these torches, I could burn Collinwood to the ground! A beautiful building, but — what need of Collinwood, if there are no Collinses?”
I don’t really have time to sit here and transcribe every word that Count Petofi says today, so I’ll just say that the whole episode is like this, and you’ll have to take my word for it.
Because we really ought to get back to the important matters, namely: Istvan’s trousers. The gypsies make camp in the woods for the night, which gives Istvan plenty of opportunities to walk back and forth across the set, entertaining the American viewing public. I’m not going to take a screenshot of the rear view on this ensemble, but it’s basically a special effect; it’s the marionette bat of the men’s department.
Magda and King Johnny sit around the campfire, chatting about murder and betrayal and who cut Istvan’s tongue out, when suddenly there’s some anxious grunting on the other side of the set, and they find that somebody’s torn their luggage apart. Rattled, Johnny checks on the legendary Hand, and you’ll never guess what happens next.
It’s the ghost of Abraham Howell, who appears via the magic of Chromakey. He retrieves his stolen hand, and then strolls away, holding it next to his empty sleeve as if he’s trying to figure out how to screw it back on.
Realizing that the Hand was a fake, the King of the Gypsies roars, “The big switch! The oldest gypsy trick in existence!” In the confusion, Magda slips away and hides in the bushes. Johnny orders Istvan to find her — and then they’ll get back to the caravan, and return to Boston. And that’s how you do it: another half hour of flawless daytime television.
Tomorrow: A Giant Evil Force.
When I wrote this article, I figured that acting helpless and ill-informed would inspire the amazing commenters to provide all the extra research that I didn’t do. That always works. And in this case, they really came through on the “silent Black strongman” archetype.
Grant pointed out that there’s a character called “The Nubian” in the 1932 Universal Monsters film The Mummy, which I’m very ashamed that I missed, because I love spotting Universal Monsters references. My pal Andrew Leal also supplied some 1930s comic strip references — both Mandrake the Magician and Jungle Jim had Black strongman assistant/slave characters. So, yes, the idea was definitely in the pop culture consciousness, and the DS crew would have been familiar with some of those.
Also, in general — if you’re not reading the comments sections on this blog, you’re missing out on some really smart and funny observations. It’s basically an alternate blog running concurrently with mine. This is the one internet comments section that is absolutely worth reading. Just so you know.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
When King Johnny tells Magda he needs to bless the Hand, somebody in the studio coughs.
Outside the Old House, as Aristede watches Johnny and Istvan lead Magda away, you can see the top of the set.
In the woods, when Magda runs off, King Johnny shouts her name. Istvan enters the shot, apparently stumbling over something, because there’s a huge clatter.
Behind the Scenes:
Istvan is played by Henry Judd Baker, and it’s his first screen credit. Baker appeared on Broadway as an Egyptian in the 1968 musical Her First Roman, about the love affair between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. It closed after 17 performances. After Dark Shadows, Baker appeared in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Off-Broadway play called No Place to Be Somebody, the story of a Black bartender who stands up to a syndicate of white mobsters.
Baker also appeared in the 1974 horror film Seizure, which starred Jonathan Frid, and he had small roles in several films in the 1980s, including Cruising, After Hours and The Money Pit.
The ghost of Abraham Howell was played by Philip Cusack, in his only screen role. In 1988, Cusack directed a couple episodes of the TV version of Nine to Five. I don’t know what he did the rest of the time.
Tomorrow: A Giant Evil Force.
— Danny Horn